Pakistan is set to host a day-long trilateral dialogue with China and Afghanistan in Islamabad after the arrival of the Chinese and Afghan foreign ministers, Qin Gang and Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, on Friday.
In addition to attending the fifth round of the trilateral dialogue between the three countries on Saturday, the two foreign ministers will also participate in bilateral discussions with their Pakistani counterpart Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
Muttaqi, Afghanistan’s interim foreign minister, was granted a travel ban exemption by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) earlier this month allowing him to travel to Pakistan. He has long been subjected to a travel ban, asset freeze and arms embargo under UNSC sanctions.
“The government of Afghanistan wants to hold comprehensive talks on bilateral political-commercial relations, regional stability and transit between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Ziad Ahmad Takkal, deputy spokesperson of the Afghan foreign ministry, said on Friday.
While this will be the Chinese foreign minister’s first visit to Pakistan, Muttaqi last travelled to Pakistan in November 2021, just a few months after the Afghan Taliban took control in Kabul.
The visit to Pakistan by the Afghan minister comes in the same week the UN hosted a conference on Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar, without inviting the country’s Taliban rulers.
Addressing the Doha conference on May 2, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the Taliban’s suppression of women’s rights in Afghanistan, including the ban on education.
“Let me be crystal clear, we will never be silent in the face of unprecedented systemic attacks on women’s and girls’ rights. We’ll always speak out when millions of women and girls are being silenced and erased from sight,” Guterres said.
The UN chief was categorical that the Taliban would not be recognised as the rulers of Afghanistan.
“The meeting was about developing a common international approach, not about recognition of the de facto Taliban authorities,” Guterres told reporters in Doha.
Pakistan maintains close ties with its northwestern neighbour. The two countries share a 2,600 km-long (1,660 miles) border, also known as the Durand Line. However, Muttaqi’s visit comes at a time when Pakistan has seen a dramatic increase in violent attacks in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the southwestern province of Balochistan, both of which border Afghanistan.
Authorities in Pakistan allege the attacks are launched from within Afghan territory by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an armed group ideologically aligned with the Afghan Taliban. However, despite the exchange of terse words between the authorities of both countries, Pakistan has continued to hold talks with the Afghan Taliban without officially recognising them as the country’s lawful government.
In his address to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in India on Friday, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bhutto-Zardari urged the international community to “meaningfully engage” with the interim Afghan government.
“After being the playground for great powers, time and time again, we owe it to the people of Afghanistan to not repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said in the speech in the Indian city of Goa.
Abdul Syed, an expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan, said Muttaqi’s visit to Islamabad was an important development in relations between the two countries, particularly in light of recent tensions.
“After TTP’s repeated attacks in the last few months and the Police Line [an area in the city where important government installations are located] bombing in Peshawar in January this year, Pakistan raised objections with the Afghan government. But they were given brusque responses from Muttaqi. So, for him to make this visit now can be seen as a softening of stance and positive progress,” the Sweden-based Syed told Al Jazeera.
China, the third participant in the dialogue, also has significant interests in the other two countries.
Beijing is Pakistan’s key economic and defence partner and has invested heavily in Pakistan, headlining with $60bn in the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. However, multiple attacks by armed groups have targeted Chinese nationals and their interests in Pakistan in recent years.
China has asked Pakistan to ensure the safety of its citizens and their investments.
Chinese companies are also investing in Afghanistan.
A Chinese firm signed a multimillion-dollar investment contract in January this year, the first significant foreign investment in the country since August 2021 when the Taliban took over.
In March 2022, then-Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi also made a surprise visit to Kabul where he met the Taliban leaders “to discuss various issues, including the extension of political relations, economic, and transit cooperation”.
Some observers believe that the Chinese involvement in Afghanistan is more to do with security concerns than economic interests.
Aamer Raza, an assistant professor of political science at Peshawar University, told Al Jazeera that the foremost Chinese concern in Afghanistan is minimising the threat posed by the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is the reason Beijing continues to engage with the Afghan Taliban.
ETIM is an al-Qaeda-affiliated armed group that has conducted attacks on China in its pursuit of the creation of “East Turkistan” on the Chinese mainland.
“China has maintained its diplomatic presence… with the Afghan contact group and other multilateral forums under the SCO and beyond, which means the Chinese are well placed to at least mitigate immediate security threats,” Raza told Al Jazeera.
In the aftermath of the UN conference in Doha, which excluded the Taliban, Raza believes non-engagement with Afghanistan’s leadership is unproductive.
“Regardless of what the UN have done, there is a need to socialise the Taliban into the international norms without extending them full diplomatic recognition. In the absence of domestic opposition and sufficient regional support, the policy of non-engagement will hardly have the desired impacts,” he said.
Syed said that despite the security concerns and testy exchanges of words, Pakistan and Afghanistan need each other.
“It is a political necessity for Islamabad to maintain ties with Kabul, considering the Afghan Taliban are trying to improve relations with other regional countries and Pakistan cannot afford to ignore them,” he said.
“Similarly, though, the Afghan Taliban too realise that despite any diplomatic progress they make in the region, it is imperative upon them to maintain cordial ties with Pakistan.”